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Health Information Defeating the Dry Winter Air

Winter in Chicago is brutal. Not only do you have to trudge through snow and brace against the wind, but, most likely, your lips are chapped, your skin is itchy and you've already been sick at least once. While you can't do much about the snow or wind, using a humidifier can help combat the harsh effects of winter weather by adding moisture to the air in your home.

Because winter air has low humidity, it can dry out your skin and mucous membranes, making your skin itchy, your throat scratchy and your nose sometimes bleed. This dry air may also aggravate sinus troubles or asthma and cause discomfort if you have a cold or cough.

"A humidifier is especially helpful for people with certain upper respiratory conditions like sinusitis or an asthma flare-up, and for certain skin conditions," says Shaila Pai-Verma, MD, an internist at Rush University Medical Center. You don't need to use a humidifier continuously throughout the winter, but if you have an upper respiratory infection, a cold or a bout of extremely dry skin, you can use it until your symptoms go away, recommends Pai-Verma.

Some homes have a central humidifier that connects to the heating system. For those homes without, portable humidifiers are available in two main types: cool mist and warm mist. Both release moisture into the air; however, Pai-Verma recommends choosing a cool mist humidifier. A warm mist humidifier is a safety hazard, especially if you have children, because it can cause burns from the heated water.

No matter which type of humidifier you choose, it's crucial to properly clean and maintain it. "If you don't, you're opening yourself up to more health problems," says Pai-Verma. "Mold and bacteria can grow and then be released into the air." To prevent this, follow the maintenance instructions that come with your humidifier. After each use, drain the remaining water in the machine and wipe it dry. Every three days, it's best to clean it with either a dilute bleach or peroxide solution and scrape off any scale build-up inside. For more information on cleaning and maintaining your humidifier, read the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations in Use and Care of Home Humidifiers.

Below are some other recommendations for using and maintaining your humidifier.

  • Use a hygrometer — readily available at home improvement and electronics stores — to measure the humidity in your home. An ideal humidity level is between 30 to 40 percent. If you have moisture droplets on your window, the air inside is too humid.
  • Use distilled water instead of tap water in your humidifier to minimize the amount of white sediment that can form in the machine and get released into the air.
  • Make sure the area around your humidifier is dry and that it's not leaking water.
  • Use a bottle brush to clean the narrow parts of the humidifier and remove sediment.
  • If your humidifier has a filter, change it frequently to prevent bacteria and mold from growing in it.
  • After using your humidifier, prep it for storage by cleaning it and drying it thoroughly.
You may want to consider replacing your humidifier each season because scale can build up over time and become harder to clean thoroughly. If you use your humidifier more often, think about replacing it more often. "As long as you keep it clean, a humidifier can definitely help make you more comfortable during the winter," says Pai-Verma.
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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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